10 January 2018 – Today, a military appellate court postponed the appeal of 13 men who were tried before the Bahraini Military High Court on 25 December 2017. The appeal has been postponed to 14 January 2018. This case marks the first trial of civilians before a military court in Bahrain since 2011, after King Hamad amended the constitution to allow for this measure on 3 April 2017. These measures violate international fair trial standards and Bahrain’s international obligations. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) condemns the ongoing trial of civilians in Bahraini military courts, and calls for these rulings to be immediately vacated, and all of the defendants to be released.
On 25 December 2017, the Bahraini Military High Court Bahrain tried 18 men on charges of forming a terrorist cell and plotting to assassinate a military official. The court sentenced six men to death, sentenced seven men to seven years’ imprisonment, and acquitted five of the defendants. The 13 men who were convicted were also stripped of their nationality.
The government tried and convicted the men in trials before the country’s military judiciary, a system of courts run by the armed forces – rather than overseen by civilian authorities. Similar military courts operated in the aftermath of the 2011 pro-democracy protests, and they were noted for their lack of fair trials, opacity, and acceptance of torture-induced confessions. After the 2011 protests, the government dissolved the tribunals and maintained a constitutional provision prohibiting military courts from trying civilians except in states of national emergency. However, on 3 April 2017, Bahrain’s king amended the constitution to remove this protection, empowering the military judiciary to try civilians accused of national security crimes, under normal circumstances. On 24 October 2017, the Bahraini government began the first trial of civilians in the military courts since 2011, with Sayed Alawi Sayed Husain Alawi, Sayed Fadhel Abbas Hassan Radhi, Mohammed Abdulhassan Al Mutaghwi, and Muhammed Husain Al Shehabi among the first defendants.
The use of military courts to try civilians is in violation of the fair trial rights enshrined in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 10) and the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (Article 14). In addition, the re-opening of military trials of civilians contravenes the spirit of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry Report, which stated in Recommendation 1720 that the fundamental principles of a fair trial were not respected in the military-led National Safety Courts, and that the cases should be subject to civilian review.
In addition to the use of a military court, the trial itself was mired in other human rights violations. Some of the defendants stated that the military officials had tortured them to extract confessions. Eight defendants were convicted in absentia, as they had reportedly fled to Iraq and Iran, and at least two were minors at the time of the alleged offense or arrest. Some of the defendants did not meet with a lawyer until their third hearing in November 2017. The court even “issued a decision banning the publication of any information, data or news by any audio-visual, electronic or written media.”
“By moving civilians into military courts, the Bahraini government is showing just how fundamentally broken the justice system is in the country. There is no rule of law, and international fair trial standards are cast aside without a second thought. This is completely unacceptable,” said Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of ADHRB. “Death sentences, citizenship revocation, and lengthy prison terms handed down by military courts against defendants who have faced disappearance, isolation, incommunicado detention, and torture capture a stark picture of the lengths of Bahrain’s repression at the start of the new year, and reveals the government’s inclinations for abuse absent external pressure.”
ADHRB condemns in the strongest terms the death sentences against the six men that resulted from unfair trials, and calls upon the government to void the verdicts and immediately and unconditionally release the men. ADHRB further condemns the denaturalization of these defendants, and calls on Bahrain to immediately restore their nationality in line with its international commitments. Finally, we call on Bahrain to institute an immediate moratorium on the death penalty with a view toward abolishing capital punishment, and cease the trial of civilians before military courts.
Note: The original version of this post included reports that three of the 18 defendants in the initial trial were minors at the time of the alleged crime or arrest; ADHRB has been unable to confirm these reports, and has therefore removed them pending verification.